This is a quick summary of my Pedal for Scotland Big Belter 2nd time experience back in 2014
I fell in love with this event so much I’ve now completed it every year since and will be going back again this year (2017).
I thought it would be useful for others thinking about the event to get an idea of my experience as a cyclist coming through to Glasgow from Edinburgh and cycling back “the long way round”. So here goes…….
4am and I’m rising to my alarm ringing.
Time for a pollo e funghi penne pasta meal!!! Mmmmm. Lovely breakfast.
I was remembering that I did the Pedal for Scotland 2013 sportive and in my rush to get down to Murrayfield to catch the arranged transport through to Glasgow, I had skimped on my breakfast in favour of some snacks on the bus. I had learned the hard way that that REALLY didn’t work – by bonking halfway through the morning and having to push on another 20 miles up and down hills to get to the lunch stop . I was cold, shaky and unfeasibly miserable by the time I got there…..
This year I was more organised- I had some tried and tested kit to wear that had stood the test of time and I had prepped my food, my clothes, my bike, my lights, my bottles, my map , fastened my bike numbers on the bike and cycling shirt and had downloaded the route into my map my fitness app for reference. ( I now know better and just use Strava and my Garmins). I had even remembered to charge up my spare back up battery for my phone and to get to bed early – well before midnight (though only just) – the night before. All I had to do was get up, get washed , fed and dressed and out.
4.10 am and I’m microwaving pasta whilst checking weather forecasts – it’s looking good so I don’t have to take any of the heavier clothes – great!
4.15 tucking into the food and watching some of the Vuelta on the telly – just to get me in the mood.
4.30 washing / shaving – still blinking sleep out of my eyes.
4.45 getting into my clothes – fussing about with the fit of my pants so I don’t get chaffed. You know….. Udder cream gets liberally applied. Yup – it does! – Experience has proven its value time and again, let me tell you.
4.55 making final clothes / jackets selections and stuffing items into carefully balanced pockets.
5.00 Time to leave! ……And I’m checking tyre pressure – merdre! Too low – track pump is out and blawing in a flash!
Its still dark and cold outside however….
So the leg and arm warmers are on….and what a great invention these things are . I’ve always struggled with thermal regulation. My ability to cycle at any sort of decent pace just drops into my boots when I get too hot. The ability to peel off my arms layer without even stopping still amazes me . Uncovering the legs still takes a stop but is still pretty quick.
5.10am I’m out in the dark streets pedalling past blank curtain windows. I decide not to risk the innocent railway in the dark and am hustling my way through deserted streets. This is a full 30 minutes earlier than last year and I blitz my way across town because there is no traffic. Made it in record time – cycling through lights that were stuck on red because they don’t recognise me approaching and there is absolutely no traffic then anyway.
I can’t afford to miss the bus and the starting slot of 6.30 to 7.30am. The Sportive instructions were quite clear on that. I was fully prepared however and managed to get to Murrayfield in good time, earlier than last year and was ushered around the back of the stadium where the organisers had two buses and two artic lorries waiting.
(Note that from 2016 onwards, the gathering venue for buses from Edinburgh in the morning has been changed to the Edinburgh Airport Ingleston Park and Ride area.)
The organisers thoughtfully provided rolls of bubble wrap for you to wrap your bike frame. This is a good idea but I couldn’t be bothered with it. I received a slip of paper for my bike to remind me which lorry it was on, and they checked that the bib number on my chest matched that on my bike. This was important for bike collection purposes.
I was on the bus in no time, as it was still cold and dark and I didn’t want to get cold.
After about 15 minutes the bus had gradually filled and we were off. I nibbled on a cereal bar, a banana and a breakfast milk drink in order to boost my energy levels – there was no way I was going to get caught out with not having enough energy and bonking. So I sat and munched away like a little squirrel.
The sun was gradually coming up and you could see that the ground was cold and had a low lying mist on them – it was eerily beautiful and I would have loved to linger but we were going full gas to Glasgow and would need to be quick to catch the last group or 2 of the sportive before they switched over to the classic city to city route only. Getting too warm, I struggled out of my leggings whilst bouncing around in the confined space between the coach seats as we rattled our way down the M8 and M73 motorways.
After what seemed to be a very short time, we arrived. The Arctic Lorries were already there and were unloading. The guys taking the bikes off were shouting the bike race number and you had to be wearing the same number on your chest or back to get the bike off them. It worked very well and the bikes were being unloaded quickly with a swarm of cyclists around the end of each lorry, awaiting the offloading and return of their precious bicycle back to them. Cooly composed faces all masked a secret anxiety of “what if my bike is missing?”. The system worked well however and everyone was soon re-united with their lightweight steeds.
Glasgow Green Start
The Green is by far the oldest of the city’s parks. It is situated within walking distance of the city centre east of the Saltmarket and is currently being revitalised with major investment through the Lottery Heritage Fund providing a catalyst for the redevelopment of the local neighbourhood. In the middle of the Green there is a large building called the People’s Palace with a large Winter Gardens attached. This served as the registration point for people picking up their numbers and was apitstop for toilets and coffee.
We had arrived at 6.55am – the last sportive riders were to leave by 7.20am. Again, benefitting from last years experience, I had prepared myself on the coach in terms of last minute ablutions etc as there would be no time between receipt of bike and heading to the start line.
Be aware ! – A pitstop and a wait in the queue for the loo is definately not feasible, if you get the transport option through from Edinburgh in the morning. By the time you get your bike off the transport lorry , you have to be quick to get to the start line on time. A quick cycle to warm up and a dash to the start line were therefore the order of the day and I was heading off over the start line – in the last official group of fifty or so cyclists – by 7.10am.
Getting the hell out of Dodge!
So I was off….I hadn’t spied any other cyclist that I knew on the way over or at the start line, so I was potentially on my own for the day. I would hopefully hook up with other cyclists I know along the way, or I would chat with other folks that I would be travelling alongside for a while.
To chat – or not to chat – that is the question
Some people are quite happy to chat – others don’t want to because it breaks their concentration or their just not comfortable with it. I have found that very often Sportive Cyclists will start off being quite tight lipped as they try and negotiate the route maps , direction arrows , marshals and etc within the built up environment of the start point but relax a lot more once they’re out on the open road.
I joined a group of other riders as we threaded our way out if the city. As before, I found myself reflecting on the down side of being a single rider. Having a cycle buddy is really good on longer rides – someone to blether with as you ride passes the time and the miles much more easily than when you are on your own. You’ve also got someone that can lead out for a while and then can get on your wheel – and it’s always good to have someone who can spur you on when you’re flagging.
There was an unending stream of streets, corners and junctions which flew passed quickly as we worked our way out of the city. I seemed to be fairing quite well – passing a significant stream of cyclists strung out in a thin line down the streets of the route, until I noticed that I had got to the point where the cyclists around me seemed to be going at my sort of pace (which is slow) neither pulling away nor being dropped by me. This is a magical natural self selecting process that always occurs within the first 5 miles or so of a sportive, in which you end up grouped with some cyclists around you who are going along at the same speed as you. Now is a good time to really look at the people around you – because chances are you’ll be seeing them either off and on or continuously for the next 70 miles, all being well. Some people may arrive or depart from that group as energy levels ebb or flow, but on the whole, unless you take ages for food stops or have a mechanical, these are the faces you’re going to see for a good few miles.
Eventually the city buildings, gave way to suburban houses, which gave way to rural fields and roads. We were on the B769 – and the road had tilted up. We had passed Pollock Park, Thornliebank and Patterton. We crossed over to the west side of the M74, which meant we were about about 130m up and 13km out from the start. Another 5km to go before we would top out at 240m, so a few steeper hills ahead. I pushed on – catching up with and passing quite a few riders on the hills, which was nice. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t revel in other peoples misery, far from it – but it was nice to think that this non-club recreational cyclist was getting on up hills past other folk (most of whom were on bikes much newer and presumably lighter than mine).
Turning on the gas in a chain gang.
Once we were on Dodside road and had climbed to the top, the road turned into a real gem – reasonably smooth road surface with rolling hills and mature green countryside. Thankful not to be climbing hills anymore, I turned on the gas a bit more and started to spin faster.
Ah….much better. It’s good to get a bit of speed up – get the wind in your face, the heat in your muscles, that slight burn in your lungs and legs. I was pushing along now, nose into the wind , but a group of 4 other riders chain-ganged past me. I joined their wheel. They were setting a good pace and I had to lift my own game to keep pace. This was good!! I yelled my “hello- mind if I join your wheel?” into the wind, as there is nothing more unfriendly than sitting on someones wheel, getting sucked along behind them without even introducing yourself. It’s just not decent, you know.
Also, if you do join a wee chain, expect to filter your way to the front and do a stint there before being overhauled. Again, if you are benefiting from other people putting in the work – it’s only right and fitting that you take your turn and allow them to breathe a bit before coming back up to assist you. If you don’t your officially a cycling asshole…just saying.
This is where I have to confess that whilst I had got on to their tails in a good fashion and had a good few stints up front it wasn’t long before the relentless pace was making me flag. These guys were hardened club riders and I wasn’t used to this sort of pace. Again, the downside to not having enough time to train with others.
I’m going to have to do something about that. Get myself into a bike club or something…anyone got any good suggestions?
Unfortunately, we were now blasting along so quickly we missed one of the titchy arrow turn off signs to go down Clunch Road down to the A77. We blasted from Newton Mearns straight through Stewarton and on to Kinmaurs before we noticed a distinct lack of roadsigns. A quick stop and a check of our GPS or google-maps-enabled phones showed we were off course. We realised we were so far south that we were closer to Kilmarnock than to Galston, which was to be the next town on the signposted route. We plotted our route down to Kilmarnock in order to turn east along the A71 to reach Galston and pick up on the official signposted route. This added about 4km to the route distance by going to Galston via Kinmaurs, Kilmarnock and Hurlsford, instead of the shorter route that was signposted………Doh!
Food stop privation equals energy loss just as we start to climb…sigh!
As well as the extra distance, there was another down side to our little off-piste sortie. Our new diversion meant we had missed the first food stop of the ride and consequently had another 35 miles to cycle before getting to the next one. Although I had eaten (sort of) before leaving in the morning, and although I had crammed a quick energy bar in before the off at Glasgow Green, my tank was beginning to empty and my legs were fading. I also realised that having just got to Galston, we were about to embark on two pretty big climbs just south of the town. I bade my speedy chums a farewell and said I’d be taking it easy up the hills. I broke out another energy bar – I was going to need more food than this. Strava informed me later that I had used up 4062 Calories of energy over the entire ride.
Just south of Galson, at the 40km mark, the road tilts up and goes up 181m in the next 3.3km – In Strava world it’s called the B7037 Climb and is considerd to be a category 3 climb at gradients between 4 and 14.2 per cent. I slugged my way up – both passing others and being passed by others. My energy levels had plummeted and I knew it was going to be at least 30 minutes or so before my digestion would offer anything better in the way of energy. I plodded on but didn’t push too hard – trying to save energy. I reflected that perhaps saving energy on the first part of the ride, stopping for fuel where it was provided and having energy to climb the first real long climb of the day would have made good sense – just as the route plotters would have intended it perhaps.
Just to add insult to injury there is a second part of the climb immediately after the first rising from 235m to 307m in 0.8km -its called the Burnhouse Climb. Both climbs took 32mins 10 seconds at an average speed of 10.7km/h – Woeful really – but I wasn’t at my best obviously.
The descent to Darvel drops to 129m from 307m in about 4km. It passed in a blur at speeds up to 45.4 kmh. We dropped to a road junction, joining the A71 again, where we proceded to climb up out of the very valley that we had just descended into.
To cut a veeeery long story short – there was a series of no fewer than 9 uphill sections that morning before the next food station at Crawford John – my average speeds increased up each hill as I took on more energy bars or gels but I was still starving by the time I got there. The weather had been variable – it had rained at times (light showers), been gusty at times ( it was generally windy) and I had been very focused on keeping on going , facing into the wind. I fervently hoped that as we turned east the wind would be behind me.
The lovely people at the community centre had put on live music – a tad too loud for my taste – loads of hot tea and coffee, sandwiches, energy biscuits and bowls of pasta. I ate everything that wasn’t tied down……
Clearly the local community were fighting a planning issue with the development of windmill farms on their doorstep, as a number of “object to this development” brochures were available at each table. This clearly didn’t sit well with a lot of the relatively knackered riders that appeared as most collected food and then went to sit outside….
(Update note – as a result of having to cut costs – the organisers of the 2016 route had stopped at the same venue but elected to put up folding tables for food provisions and temporary checmical toilets. The comunity centre was closed and could not be used to shelter in, which meant that the long awaited rest stop wasn’t really a rest stop as you got too cold in the drizzly rain and there was no where to take shelter.
It was a really poor effort in comparison with other years, and one that I hope the organisers will be rectifying fro 2017. (Must remember to pack a foil blanket to wrap myself in or something …) )
Onwards – refreshed, refueled and much more like business as usual.
Surprise, Surprise – it was uphill again on the way out of Crawford John back up to the higher levels where the wind blew you about. I had travelled 106.2km and had cycled for 5 hours and 11minutes before I cycled under the A74 near Abington. I felt like I was cycling back in to a landscape that I knew and understood. I was coming back into “home” territory, having been abroad in foreign cycling territory that had preyed upon me with its wicked hills.
I had fueled up and was feeling much more refreshed at lunch and my performance was much more like business as usual. I was climbing hills better, revelling in the downhill sections and pushing up speeds on the flat sections. Turning left at Roberton, there was a Loooong category 4 uphill gradient that led on to another looooong Category 4 climb on the B7055. This took you over the shoulder of the range of Pentland Hills and into the valley that ultimately leads to Balerno. My average speed going uphill was 16.5km/h – a little bit faster than earlier. On the A70, I am pushing 35 to 40kmh, rolling up and down with the road, and loving it. Getting going again!!!
(One of the delights of this section of road is what is dubbed the “Great Grannies” stop. An unofficial stop on a corner of the route before Carmichael Hill, where the local ladies have ganged together to form an unofficial stop for knackered cyclists and who are in many ways offering a service which exceeds that of the organsiers…many people breeze past but I always stop to say hello and get a cuppa hot tea! They have fold out chairs to sit in – a stone wall that protects you from the wind, blankets to cover your legs to keep you warm, hot tea or coffee, and even some lovely homebaked cakes, cookies and chocolatey things. Honestly, the good natured hospitality that they cheerfully exude is enough to restore my faith in the good bits of our humanity it really does. They always have a kind word and a cuppa for any poor straggler coming in to collapse on their chairs.
God bless them and long may it continue, becuase it’s certainly appreciated by this particular rider.)
That bloody hill!!
As you enter Harley Holm from the west you turn right to face south east and you see down a straight street to a short sharp uphill section that is called Carmichael Hill (Devonside Road), that has an elevation gain of 96m in just half a kilometre. As I look up it, I see maybe half a dozen people cycling up it, straining everything just to creep up so slowly it looks like they’re standing still. The vast majority of riders (20 to 30 of them) are off their bikes and are walking up the left hand side of the road. Oh God! It looks like hell. As I approach the bottom, two young lads are handing out cups of water to passing cyclists, Tour de France style. “Chuck the cup away when you’re finished, we’ll pick them up ” they shout…Good lads!!
I’m in my granny gear and am ascending, concentrating on keeping a regular rythm. I hear my heartbeat and breathing loudly in my ears, as I strain further up the hill – the gradient has popped up from 5% to 12.3% . Bloody hell – this is getting steeper! And so it does – suddenly ramping up to 38% according to my Garmin and Strava read out, That can’t be right can it?? Surely not.
It is right – and it certainly feels like it. I am having to lean hard over the handlebars because my front wheel is lifting with my pushes. I am having to push evenly on the pedals to stop the rear wheel from slipping. Mental note – I must write to Simon Warren – Author of “100 Greatest Cycling climbs” and “Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs”. This one has to get put into it – it has to be printed for the world to see.
I’m now red-faced, panting heaviliy and cursing every kilogram, of my gravity sucked bodymass as I lever it up the hill in foot long sections. Crank, crank, push push push. I’m getting there – but the sweat is running down the small of my back and my legs are now vibrating beneath me. Bizarely, I’m loving it, grinning ear to ear in a kind of deathly grin as I suck in air to try and oxygenate my labouring muscles. I am absolutley and coldly , ruthlessly determined to get up the hill when others have failed. I feel oddly removed from my surroundings and am sitting back in my brain observing my body performing as I am commanding ( although barely) and am barely registering the discomfort and pain in my legs from the lactic acid build up. My eyes are stinging now from sweat from my brow that has burst over the dam of my eyebrows. I can’take my hand off my bars now, I’ll just have to perservere, blinking crazily my by-now red-rimmed eyes.
I’m not caring – I’m mentally in a cool place reflecting on my effort so far and determining the next best push. I approach what appears to be the top and I see that it is in fact a left hand right angled turn with yet more hill beyond it, which was hidden behind the wall . Shit! ………..I can now see the top though, and it’s not too far, but by now my legs are acid burning like they are on fire!–
Keep pushing lad – I tell myself – You know you can get there. C’mon!
I keep gasping my way up – not caring now how I look or whatever style I might or might not have on the bike – its down to the raw effort of getting to the hoses at the top and over the crest of the hill.
I learned later that the last uphill curve drags on longer than you think and you have to be fully past the houses and turning the next corner before the road tilts down.
…and suddenly it’s all over. The three cyclists immediately in front of me stop dead in their tracks and put their feet down. I swerve crazily trying to get past with no distance to spare – start to get turned back down the hill by the gradient and that’s it….I have to unclip and put my feet down or I’d be over in a heap. Damn it!! I was doing okay…I could maybe have completed that hill in one go!!! Trying to get started and clipped in and push on upwards on the steepest gradient section is impossible so I grumpily walk for a small section until I judge (correctly) that I can probably get going again – I do so straight away.
I took me 9mins 59 seconds to climb 89m on that bloody stretch of road – i will DEFINATELY be coming back to do this bit of road again,,,and again…and again. Oh yes…..
(And indeed have done so …5 times to be precise. It doesn’t get any easier but Igot up and over it everytime …so its do-able)
I think I might be a cycling sado-masochist – I certainly have all of the hallmarks.
The downhill after this is fantastic – in 3mins 38 seconds I top out at 58.9kmh on a long swooshy downhill but my legs are still twitching from the hill climb.
By now I’m pushing on, my confidence building as I get closer and closer to Edinburgh and on to roads I recognise.
Interestingly, I had travelled 106.2km and had cycled for 5 hours and 11minutes before I cycled under the A74 near Abington, the latter 80km were completed in 3hours 45 minutes and 49 seconds, A huge improvement. I blazed into Edinburgh feeling just great – my endorphins going crazy with the delight of being back hame.
Overall 184.6 km in 8hrs 01min 02seconds.